The summer of 1999 saw the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, now just the Rays, sign two of the best prospects ever to cross their board. Both have had the tag "best to ever play the game" attached to them at one point or another, but where they came from and where they wound up are as different as night and day.
The first player was drafted out of high school and given a $4 million signing bonus. He was a tremendous pitcher who often reached the mid-high 90's on the radar guy. He also played the outfield as well as just about any high schooler in the country. And at bat the kid was Babe Ruth. His name was Josh Hamilton, and by now just about all of America knows his story. Incredible prospect who suffered a bad car accident with his parents. While he and they were recovering, he began to hang out in tattoo parlors in some pretty bad neighborhoods. He was introduced to the world of alcohol, cocaine, heroin and finally crack. He wasted away to a skinny 170 pounds and wound up spending 4 years away from the game while enduring several attempts at rehabilitation.
Monday night he became a baseball hero in New York the likes of which having been seen in a long, long time. 28 home runs in the first round...and it seemed as if the night would never end as he hit bomb after bomb after bomb. Tuesday night he was the starting center fielder for the AL in the very last All-Star game ever to be played at Yankee Stadium. He is also the favorite thus far for MVP of the league, setting the pace with 95 RBI so far. His story of faith, recovery and redemption is something right out of Hollywood.
The second player wasn't drafted. He didn't even attend high school as he had dropped out in the 7th grade because he had trouble keeping up with the workload. He grew up in a single-parent household. No mother and a father who worked around the clock. Some people in his town admitted that he was probably "slow". After a scout from the Devil Rays happened upon one of his games...in the middle of a sugar cane field...he was signed to a $30,000 bonus and a minor league contract. The scout saw an 18 year-old kid who hit 95 on the radar gun with a devastating curveball. But that was the least of his talents. He was a switch-hitter who launched pitch after pitch over the outfield walls. A once in a lifetime kind of talent.
His name was Greg "Toe" Nash and his path toward stardom has been sidetracked to a jail cell. At one point in a one-year period he was arrested six times for a variety of offenses. The last was an arrest for statutory rape. The 15 year-old girl later admitted to consensual sex with the budding star and two of his buddies, but the men also stole some items from the girl's house. She made up the story of the rape to explain the robbery. That was the end of his career with Tampa Bay.
The Cincinnati Reds decided to give him a try and signed him to a minor league contract in 2002. He never got to play for him as he was arrested soon after on charges of domestic violence and violation of his parole. He was finally given a five-year sentence which, I believe, he is still serving today. He is due to get out of jail the year he turns 29.
I don't know if any of the myths surrounding the Toe are true. There are some who say that it was all exaggerated. I don't care. I want the myths to be true even if the dream never came true. It's sad to think that we will never know. But the idea of walking into a sugar cane field or a corn field or an inner-city blacktop and finding the real-life Roy Hobbs is irresistible. A boy with a cannon for an arm and lightning in his bat.